Revised Common Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 or Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 78:1-7 or Psalm 70
Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Last week I mentioned that we are nearing the end of our Ordinary Time journey, that we began with Abraham and Sarah, and then traveled through their family to the great family of Israel in Egypt, and how water marked the boundary, crossing the Red Sea into the wilderness out of slavery, and last week, crossing the Jordan into their new homeland. This passage in Joshua continues to mark the ending of our Ordinary Time, which began with the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and ends with a new covenant that God makes with the people at Shechem.

It is important to remember that these words are Joshua’s. Joshua is concerned, knowing the people’s ability to stray and worship other gods (remember that golden calf, anyone?) and that the people have not yet come to believe in one Creator God, Joshua tells them they must “Choose this day whom you will serve” (vs. 15). When the people answer that they will worship the God who brought them out of Egypt, Joshua tells them to weigh the decision carefully. Joshua tells the people that if they forsake God, God will forsake them, and will not forgive them, and will cause them harm. This is not what we have learned about God, but in Joshua’s day, they believed in a multitude of gods, and Joshua attempts to distinguish their God from the others by telling them he will be jealous should they worship another god. The people insist they will follow this same God who had delivered them, so Joshua tells them they must get rid of the foreign gods–in other words, abandon the idols they may have taken with them from Egypt or from other peoples they have encountered. In a time when they are still fighting other nations around them, the sense of needing to maintain identity in all aspects–political, social, and cultural–infiltrates the religion of the people. They will maintain their unique identity from all other peoples by the God they worship, the one God.

In contrast, the words in Amos 5:18-24 perpetuate to be the words of God spoken through the prophet. These words speak warning to the people who desire the day of the Lord, the day of judgment. God warns those who desire the day of judgment, thinking God is on their side, because God will execute justice and it will be darkness, not light, for those who seek it. This passage is a warning to those who are so religious they put being religious above doing the teachings of their religions. God says “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (vs. 21). God does not desire our best religious persona, our best religious face to the public–rather, God desires justice and righteousness (vs. 24). God desires for us to do what our faith teaches us–to lift up the poor and help the oppressed. In light of the Joshua passage, do we serve our religion, or do we serve our God? Do we serve a particular religious culture or religious politics, or do we serve God? Do we serve a particular religious image, or do we serve the God who created all of us?

Psalm 78:1-7 is a song of remembrance of God’s works through the people of Israel, and the importance of remembering and passing down the stories of God’s works and of God’s commandments to the next generation. There is a sense that things may be forgotten if we do not continue to tell the stories we learned and tell them to our children. I wonder if perhaps in the mainline church we have forgotten the importance of oral tradition in our Sunday School programs and we are watching the decline in Sunday School attendance based on the fact we are using curriculum written by people we do not know most of the time that does not require the oral tradition of storytelling. And I don’t mean just telling the Biblical stories, but real storytelling of the faith–telling the stories of our church, of our grandparents and great-grandparents, of our ancestors in the faith. I see programs such as Godly Play and Worship and Wonder a great way to get back into the oral tradition, but even for small churches, I think we need to get away from the flashy programs that Christian catalogs try to sell us and to remember that curricula is a guide, not a script, and to get back into the storytelling that our faith began in.

Psalm 70 is a cry for help, a cry for deliverance, a reminder that God desires justice, mercy and righteousness, not religiousness. It is a reminder that we choose to serve God, and that we need to be wary of assuming we are on God’s side. But the plea is for God to remember God’s part of the covenant, too.

Matthew 25:1-13 is the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. This begins a three-parable series in the Gospel of Matthew, the last three parables Jesus tells before he is betrayed. These parables look to the coming reign of God–it has already begun, but it has yet to be fulfilled. This parable focuses on the need to be ready, such as the bridesmaids who were wise and took extra oil with them. Yet even the wise have “fallen asleep.” Even the wise ones do not know when or how Christ will come again in a new way in our lives. And at times, even the “wise” are almost as foolish as the fools, for we miss the opportunities to participate in Christ’s reign on earth by focusing on ourselves more than others. We are called to be ready, to be prepared for this “Second Coming,” which has been interpreted in a variety of ways throughout church history, but I like to think of it as Christ coming into our lives in a new way, because that’s truly what it is. It’s not going to be how we or the world expect. It may not even be a single event, but rather the continuation of the resurrection event. God entered our world in a new way–through the birth of the Christ-child–and then God entered our lives in a new way–through the resurrection, bridging the gap of death so that it is no more. The separation between us and God by sin has been broken. The separation between us and God by death is no more. But there is still a separation. There is still systemic sin in this world where greed rules and children starve to death. There is still sin in this world where the sick cannot get health care, where we destroy ecosystems so we can maintain a certain style of life, where we oppress others so that we can live the way we want to. We as Christians are working with Christ in building up the reign of God on earth. We are still working with Christ in eliminating the systemic sins that cause such despair and destruction in our world, and we are waiting for Christ to come again in a new way to complete and fulfill the reign of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 also looks ahead to the “day of the Lord,” this time of the reign of Christ coming to fulfillment on earth. Paul speaks of the faithful who have died rising with Christ, and those who are left being taken up to be with Christ, meeting in the air. It is a beautiful image, and we are reminded in Paul’s day of the belief that heaven was in the sky, the earth was flat and the land of the dead was below (Sheol or Hades). The language loses no beauty even with our greater understanding of the cosmos–something beautiful will happen when Christ comes into our lives in a new way.

Again, this “Day of the Lord,” this “Second Coming of Christ” may not be a specific moment, but rather something that is continuing to unfold before us. Christ is entering our lives in a new way, as we understand grater our global community, our family of God, our responsibility to be good stewards of creation, and the way systemic sin corrupts our relationship with each other and with the earth. Christ is coming again. Christ is doing something new in our lives now. We don’t have to wait until an “end time.” We can participate now. Keep awake. Be alert. Don’t worry about putting out a “religious face” to the world, that you need to fit in with a particular religious-social-cultural-political identity. Follow God. Don’t be religious but do what your religion teaches you. Be prepared for Christ to enter your life in a new way, and know that you will not be the same. You will be compelled to build up the reign of Christ on earth, if you are truly ready, alert for your opportunity to participate.

Call to Worship:
Leader: Are you awake? Are you alert?
People: Christ is coming into our lives in a new way.
Leader: Are you watching the signs? Are you interpreting what is happening today?
People: Christ is coming into our lives in a new way.
Leader: Do you see opportunities for ministry? Do you see the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the needy?
People: Christ is coming into our lives in a new way.
Leader: Come, let us worship and let us work in the reign of God.
People: Christ has extended the invitation: let us work together in the reign of God on earth.

Prayer of Confession:
Holy God, we confess that at times we have followed the gods of this world: the gods of greed and corruption. We have followed the gods of political clout and social acceptance. We have been religious without doing what our religion teaches us. Forgive us, O God, for following the false gods that infiltrate our faith. Forgive us, O God, for following the false gods of the world. Remind us of Your covenant that is in our hearts, that You love us so much You sent Your son into this world. Help us to seek our identity as followers of Christ, not as a particular religious group, and to follow what You have taught us, so that we might participate in the building of Your reign here on earth. In the name of Christ, who calls us away from the ways of the world into Your ways, we pray. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:
God knit us together in our mother’s womb; God knows how many hairs are on our heads. God knows our hearts, and knows our truest desire is to be one with God. God sees where we have been false, where we have failed, and God still loves us and forgives us. Know that God has made you. Know that you belong to God’s heart. Know that you are loved, forgiven, and restores. Amen.

Prayer:
Loving Jesus, we pray for the strength to be faithful to You. So many things draw our attention away from You, so many things draw us into seeking to better ourselves for our own gain, rather than working to build up Your reign on earth. We pray for wisdom and guidance in our lives to remember those affected by our choices of how we live. Help us to seek to do Your work here on earth, to help the poor, lift up the oppressed, bring in the marginalized, and care for the sick. Call us into a deeper relationship with You, and help us to seek strength and renewal when we feel week and helpless. Remind us that we are not alone, and help us to draw courage by being with each other, our brothers and sisters in You. We pray all things in Your name, knowing that You are always with us, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Music Suggestions:
One of my favorite hymns is “Let Your Heart Be Broken.” It is a great hymn reminding us of what Jesus and the prophets have taught us how we ought to live by serving others. “Brother (Sister) Let Me Be Your Servant” is another great song about service to others as Christ has served us. The themes for this Sunday focus on the practice of our faith, the doing of our faith, in service to others.

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